Bashar al-Assad and his top regime cronies appear to be operating under a deeply flawed assumption: the relatively broad-based opposition it now faces is similar to the narrower Muslim Brotherhood challenge it defeated back in 1982 by killing more than 10,000 Syrians in Hama. Much the same way it did 30 years ago, the regime keeps pounding away at the resistance. But unlike the Hama massacre, a few severe blows will not put an end to this latest uprising. Instead, Assad’s brutish tactics will only escalate the bloodshed and resistance.
From my post in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) during 1979-1982, I tracked the struggle of the Muslim Brotherhood against the regime of Bashar al-Assad’s father, including what would turn out to be the Brotherhood’s last stand in the city of Hama 30 years ago this month.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood during those years did not enjoy widespread support among the Syrian population, although there were some urban centers where fairly significant support existed, and the group was able to embed itself. As a result, much of its resistance consisted of somewhat isolated terrorist-style attacks against Syrian government targets (as well as Soviet military advisors). Aside from a few attacks along those lines, Damascus remained largely unaffected. The uprising of three decades ago did not begin, like this current revolt, with vast demonstrations, first for reform and then, after Bashar rejected meaningful change and opted for violent repression early last year, for the removal of the current regime.
Demonstrating the Brotherhood’s relatively limited number of truly militant cadres—and the regime’s determination to defeat them with utter brutality, the Brotherhood made the mistake of gathering in Hama in February 1982 for a great demonstration of defiance where, instead, most of its best cadres were literally obliterated by concentrated regime forces in one fell swoop. With less popular support than today’s far more diverse Syrian opposition and the bulk of the Syrian population horrified by the tragedy in Hama, the rebellion of that era largely had shot its bolt.
Consequently, for months now, the regime has been shifting from one center of resistance to another, hoping to cow the populace on a national level by administering fierce demonstrations of raw power, the latest playing out in beleaguered Homs. However, instead of responding by falling back into relatively passive acceptance, resistance is mounting. Whether there is any realization or not in the halls of power in Damascus, for months now the regime has been flailing about, simply making matters worse.
So, while the regime has been running amok amidst rising bloodshed, an opposition that previously prided itself in remaining peaceful and discouraging foreign intervention increasingly has been turning to violent resistance for sheer self-preservation and has been beseeching the international community for armed intervention against the Assad regime. Thus, by fighting on ever more savagely and rejecting all offers of alternative solutions, the regime has not been carving out a strategy for survival, but merely buying time before its own bloody demise. Yet, now facing ever grimmer popular retribution for its many crimes, Bashar & Co. probably feel locked into their repressive cycle of violence, clinging to fading hopes that the opposition will exhaust itself before the forces still defending the regime.
While many observers fear the overall situation could descend into civil war, I sense that line already has been crossed, with the scope of the violence along such lines now only limited by the arms and army deserters available to the opposition. Bashar appears to have defined the remainder of the struggle for Syria by his mistaken choice of violent repression a la 1982: the weakening of his hold as the opposition gains military strength, while his own forces erode. Meanwhile, the potential for the defection of major army units to the opposition looms as a mortal threat to the continuation of his deadly game plan as well as his regime.